On Wednesday, I received a welcome piece of mail: the latest issue of GAMES: World of Puzzles magazine. I have been a fan of the periodical since I first came across it in High School (it was on the desk of my church’s youth director) and now a subscription to it has become a perennial birthday gift from my mother. Nine times a year I receive a treasure trove of crossword puzzles, word searches, logic challenges, trivia quizzes and a variety of other games. My personal favorites in the magazine are the cryptic crosswords, puzzles, admittedly an acquired taste, which combine clever wordplay with interlinking answers.
I find these pencil-and-paper puzzles relaxing and refreshing. There is something therapeutic in the fact that there is always an answer to the crossword puzzle and, given sufficient time and creative expression, the grid will eventually be completed. There is something comforting in the fact that everything is present in a word search and given enough time and attention to detail, every item can be crossed off the list. Thanks to the magazine’s editors and game designers, black lines and letters on publisher’s grade newsprint – ordinary items of no importance alone – are expertly put together to build up my vocabulary, stretch my imagination and sharpen my mental processing skills.
Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. Colossians 3:16 (NIV)
Perhaps we could look at the Bible in a similar way. There is nothing special about the paper or the characters; the Bible, essentially, is words on a page. But, like a crossword puzzle, these words are interlocked, intentionally intersecting with other words to create a cohesive whole. Like a crossword grid, it is complete only when the all the answers are integrated together. As we read the Bible, perhaps we could think about how the portion we are working on fits among the entries around it while we come to an understanding of what we do not know and solve the conundrum by building on what we do know. That is part of the author’s skill.
Perhaps we could look at the Bible like a word search as well. We could begin with the premise that everything we are looking for will be found and, given enough time, we can cross every item off our list. Further, as a person who has done a number of word searches in my day, I will share a secret: most of the time we will find what we are looking for on the spots occupied by nothing else. When it comes to the Bible, all that we need can be found, but it may be found in the places we rarely look. That is part of the designer’s genius.
As I read the Bible, I look for the intersections formed by what I know and what I am learning (like a crossword puzzle). As I study Scripture, I look for the things that I am told are there, though hidden in unlikely places and unusual ways (like a word search). Through it all, I am increasing my vocabulary and involving by creativity, trusting that there is a way that all these disparate bits of information form a cohesive and consistent whole. Like my magazine, life can be cryptic and puzzling, but thank God that all the answers are available somewhere in the book.
My family watches a more-than-average amount of television, and we all have our favorite shows. There is one program that we tend to watch together that elicits a great deal of conversation – “What Would You Do?”. For the uninitiated, “What Would You Do?” is a hidden camera show, produced by ABC news, where unsuspecting people are recorded as they witness a wide variety of moral and cultural dilemmas, eventually to be interviewed about their reactions by the program’s host, John Quiñones. One segment might involve a bystander’s reaction to an apparently inebriated bar patron heading for their car, while another might touch on issues of a restaurant diner’s immigration status, always leaving the viewer with the question, “What Would You Do?”
As we watch the show, and in the discussions afterward, we all give our opinions about what the proper reaction should be, thinking that, if we were there, we would be one of the good folks that would talk with John Q following the scenario. We would never be the ones who tolerate discrimination or ignore outright need. We all conclude, by the end of each episode, that we would love to be on the broadcast. We are looking forward to the day when we are visiting a diner in New Jersey, overhearing a conversation about the travesty of women’s professional sports, only to hear the voice of John Quiñones behind us, saying, “Excuse me, folks, those people are actors….”
It leaves me with a question: would we be better people if we thought our actions and reactions were being watched by others? On “What Would You Do?”, they always have people who intervene, who care enough to confront the bigotry or bad behavior demonstrated by the show’s actors. They typically also have people, often whose identities have been digitally obscured, who do nothing or, worse than inaction, are advocates for what most consider to be wrong. Watching those strong and sensitive strangers defend the defenseless or notice the needy encourages me to do the same, whether anyone is watching or not.
Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation. 1 Peter 2:12 (ESV)
If you have read this blog before, you might be expecting me to remind you that God sees what you do (which is true), but that is not my takeaway today. Peter reminds us that those around us see what we are doing, and that every scenario depicted on “What Would You Do?” or played out in real life is an opportunity to reflect the goodness and glory of God. When we, as followers of Christ, do the right thing – support the figurative and literal widows and orphans, care for the physically and spiritually sick, show compassion for those imprisoned by the system or by the self – we tell all those around us that God loves, and by extension we love, the broken and bruised. Whether it is broadcast on national television or not, we are always right to address wrong.
I would still like to one day be on the show. Until then, I will imagine that there are hidden cameras when I overhear absurdity or observe abject poverty. What would you do?
During the past few months as we have been at home together, my family has been watching more syndicated game shows than usual. Many of these shows (e.g. “25 Words or Less”, “Wheel of Fortune” and “Jeopardy”) grant to the non-winners what is commonly referred to as a ‘consolation prize’, a parting gift given with the intention of lessening the blow of losing the game. These gifts might be as small as a gift certificate to Lobster Gram® or as substantial as a few thousand dollars. After thirty minutes of hard work, it is good to know that no one walks away empty handed.
“Consolation” is an interesting word to me. It is derived from a Latin prefix and root combination which originally meant ‘to soothe with” (the prefix ‘con’ and the root ‘solari’, from which we get the English word solace). In our cultural context, consolation is the comfort we receive by others after a loss or disappointment. When we offer consolation, we are giving someone else – either with words or actions – something like a balm or a salve in order to lessen the sting of loss. Consolation, in my mind, is somewhat akin to applying aloe vera to a bad sunburn.
During this pandemic, I have received consolation from an unlikely source: the book of Jeremiah. Jeremiah is called “The Weeping Prophet” by biblical scholars due to all the difficulties he encounters while serving God. For the past two months, we have been discussing this book of the Bible during our on-line study and we have read about Jeremiah being mocked, beaten, dropped into a muddy well to die, imprisoned and impugned. Most of the book recounts hardship after hardship for our messenger of God. However, during this litany of crushing disappointments, there is a section (chapters 31-33) that commentators call “The Book of Consolation”.
“The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah.” Jeremiah 31:31 (NIV)
Because of their disobedience and disregard for God, the people of Jerusalem were about to be displaced by the Babylonians. Because of their sin, they were going to suffer. But this suffering would only be for a season (albeit an extremely long season of seventy years). The coming generations would be restored and renewed. God promised through His word. The people would return to Jerusalem and God’s blessings would be reinstated. “The days are coming….”
We, too, can be consoled and soothed with the reality that “the days are coming” when God will make all things right. The good news for us is that the new covenant has already been made, through the blood of God the Son, so that all who call upon Him in faith shall be saved. The good news for us is that God has begun the process of restoration by allowing us the opportunity to be in good relationship with Him, through Christ, and that He who has begun this good work will be faithful to complete it. May we all find consolation in that, even though we may be also enduring disappointment and loss.
It is amazing how fast time flies! This weekend, for half of my children, will mark the end of Summer and school vacation. My daughter will begin her new school year (teaching remotely 443 miles from her 5th grade students) on Monday and my middle son will move into his on-campus apartment for the Fall semester on Wednesday. Our youngest son has been blessed with an academic reprieve, for his remote learning classes will not resume for another three weeks.
In many ways it seems like forever since David came home – theoretically for his freshman year’s Spring break – on March 5th, since 6th grade classes moved on-line for Joshua beginning March 16th, and since Rebekah’s truncated senior year of college and student teaching moved to remote and she drove home from Washington on March 17th. As an added blessing, throughout the Spring and Summer we have also seen our oldest son an average of twice a week. I cannot imagine another season of life when we will have this much shared time together. But now, the times, they are a-changing. The passage from August to September, for me this year, will be bitter-sweet.
There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens: […] a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance…. Ecclesiastes 3:1, 4 (NIV)
As I contemplate the change of season – meteorological and metaphorical – it causes me to pause and posit what the coming days may bring. What will be the activity of this new time and season: weeping, laughing, mourning, dancing? Are the days to be filled with disaster or delight, or some combination of both? My guess: as it has been over the first 240 days of 2020, it will be for its remaining 126. There have been and there will be those whose days, like mine, are filled with more laughter than tears and there are those whose days are filled with just the opposite.
Each of us have differing experiences and unique contexts in which we navigate the challenges and charms this life has to offer. Because of this reality, we must allow empathy, the ability to feel for another without feeling as another, to be our guide when interacting with one another. We all have grieved a loss (of life, of livelihood or of liberty) at some point this year and we all have needed compassion. We all have enjoyed a blessing (through nature, through new life, or through neighbors) during this pandemic and we all have appreciated companionship. Each of us will also continue to shed tears of sorrow and tears of joy in September and beyond, and we all must allow others the space to express themselves, unrestrained, before us.
The coming days, for me, will be tough as we transition from life fully together toward life beginning to move us apart. The coming days, for you, are likely to be different emotionally. I am glad we have each other as we rejoice together and as we grieve together. There is a time for everything, just like the weather in New England. If you are unhappy with what is occurring around you, just wait a minute with a friend.
I have become a ‘fair weather fan’ when it comes to my beloved Red Sox. I can simply no longer watch their games. They are currently sitting in last place in the American League, due in no small part to the facts that they have no pitching, they are struggling to hit the ball and they lead the league in errors. But it is not their record that is making this season unbearable; it is their apparent lack of heart on the part of the players. I can only assume this malaise is evident due to the pandemic protocols – no fans in the stands, no player on-field interactions, and social distancing in the dugout – that has robbed “America’s Pastime”, at least in Boston, of its magic.
There is something special about social interaction that cannot be captured on a Zoom call or over the phone. As much as I hate to admit it, we require human contact in order to thrive. I wonder if things would be different were the veterans on the Red Sox allowed to embrace the younger players to encourage them, especially as things are going from bad to worse. On a larger scale, are we, as a culture and as a planet, suffering to a greater degree because we cannot, literally and figuratively, shoulder one another’s load? Do we, as a people, really need a hug?
Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing. 1 Thessalonians 5:11 (NIV)
This, unfortunately, is a lost season for the Red Sox. However, it need not be the same for us. I am confident that we are able to reclaim much of what has been taken by this virus and its consequences. My suggestion for reclamation is that we rediscover the power of prayer. What has prayer got to do with being physically present with one another? I am glad you asked.
First, the language of prayer conveys physical presence. When we pray, we are lifting one another toward God. Offering up biblical prayers, like the Lord’s Prayer, evoke a real bonding of hearts and minds with one another and with God. We are together when we pray.
Second, the discipline of prayer develops intimacy. We listen more and share more when we intercede for one another. We are willing to expose our hopes and our hurts more freely in the context of prayer. We are tender when we pray.
Third, the practice of prayer offers avenues of reconnection. When I pray for you, I become invested in the ‘rest of the story’ and become eager to see how things turn out. When I pray, I am more likely to follow through and resume the conversation. We are touching base when we pray.
Finally, the reality of prayer draws us away from the problems and draws us toward the provider. Prayer enables us, together, to recognize that we haven’t got the answers to some of the toughest questions, and to recognize that we all, irrespective of demographics, needs God’s intervention. We are trusting when we pray.
While we cannot embrace one another just yet, we can engage in prayer with and for one another. That is no small thing.
The other night, we had a drive-in experience in our backyard; a video screen, projector, a VCR and an extension cord enabled us to watch “Hercules”. All the equipment was readily available to us, but until the other night, we had not taken the time to put it together. This is just the latest thing we have done because we have the time to do it. We have also spent time playing board games (my personal favorite has been “Ticket to Ride”) and card games (including the ‘oldie-but-goodie’ “Pit”, which our children had never played). We have also spent time exploring the neighborhood by foot. This pandemic has given us the opportunity to do things that we never get around to doing.
There are other things that have remained undone. I still have boxes which are still unpacked or stored away from our move eleven months ago. I still have books sitting on a radiator that I am intending to read. I still have summer clothes in the basement that I have yet to put in my bureau. I have a craft beer maker that is unopened (granted, I would still have to buy some yeast, which I have also yet to do). Despite the fact that this pandemic has given me a great deal of time at home to do whatever strikes my fancy, there are still things I have never gotten around to doing.
Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom. Psalm 90:12
I wonder how many times I said, prior to 2020, “I wish I had the time to __________.” I wonder how many times I said, prior to COVID-19, “I will get around to _________ some day.” Lord, teach me to number my days. Lord, instruct me to calculate all twenty-four hours. Lord, educate me on the usage of each cycle of 1,440 minutes. Assuming I take 6 hours to sleep and 2 hours to address hunger and hygiene, that gives me 16 hours each and every day for my vocations and avocations. What am I doing with that time? Am I utilizing this precious resource for mindful productivity and recreation or am I wasting it on mindless amusement and entertainment?
Today is day 143 of quarantine; we have been home for 3,432 hours. What have you been doing for the past 20 weeks? The Psalmist has convicted me to redeem the remaining days and hours of the quarantine, however long it lasts. I want to spend more time in constructing (building value into my life as well as the lives of others) and less in consuming (burning daylight in otherwise empty pursuits). I want to cherish the time I have with my children and my wife. I want to maximize this time of ‘voluntary seclusion’ so that, when I look back at this season of my life, I have no regrets. Lord, help me to capture a moment today where I see and share just one of your many blessings.
Lord, teach us to number our (quarantined) days.
It has been hot in Massachusetts for the last few weeks, with heat indices approaching 100° on many days. It has been so hot, in fact, that the new street in front of our home that I wrote about a few weeks ago has softened and now contains a good number of tire tracks. We are fortunate; we have a few window unit air conditioners that can take the sting out of the oppressive heat and humidity. But, under the shadow of COVID-19, there are a number of places we would have gone to beat the heat that are, this summer, unavailable.
In previous years we, as a family, might have gone to the local mall or the movie theater to escape the high temperatures and enjoy some climate-controlled coolness. Our summers past have included visits to museums and dips in public pools to find some relief. There is none of that this year. The cinemas remain unopened, the malls are too crowded, the museums are not welcoming the general public and the pools are, by and large, closed. Even the beaches, where it has also been unusually warm, are not completely safe as the sunbathers and swimmers contend with shark sightings and the lingering effects of this pandemic.
It is days like these that make a person ‘squirrelly’ – hot and bothered and itching to be somewhere else. I imagine that most of us have had more than a few days like that. What do we when we face times like that? Simmer and stew? Stomp and scream? Toss and turn at night and pace and pout during the day? It is not in our nature, I believe, to suffer in silence. We need someone to know, someone to care, someone to assure us that things will improve. Those are the days that I appreciate God’s gift of prayer, the blessing of conversation and intercession with the one who knows us best and cares for us most completely.
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Matthew 11:28-30 (NIV)
I don’t know about you, but the heat takes something out of me, and I am weary. With the news of the spread of COVID-19, I am burdened. I am grateful that Jesus offers to share His yoke with me (for those unfamiliar with the term, a yoke is a farming implement that harnesses two animals, presumably of similar strength, together). I am offered to share my load with God incarnate, who declares that my contribution to the work will be easy and light. When can we begin? It makes me feel like that three-year old at the grocery store in the race-car shopping cart, thinking that he is exerting all the effort to move the cart, but the reality is that his father is pushing from behind. Our Father in Heaven is pushing us along as well.
If you are weary and burdened, due to climate or contagion or some other catastrophe, come to him. He will give you rest.
I read a news story about a prominent web security specialist who had his laptop stolen from the back of his SUV while he was out to dinner (mind you, this act of thievery occurred ‘b.p.’ – before the pandemic). This expert in cyber safety was perplexed by the thief, wondering how how they knew that the electronics were there, under a blanket and behind tinted glass? The desk sergeant who took the incident report at the local police station stated what the victim had over looked, “Thieves are now using Bluetooth scanners on their phones; they can tell what is in the car before they break into it.” It turns out that your electronics are continually emitting signals that can be paired with other wireless devices, and those signals alert these would-be robbers to the presence of our laptops, tablets and phones.
Those who seek to separate us from our stuff and certainly cunning and crafty. If we are wise, we will be aware of their schemes and act in such a way to avoid their attacks. If we are smart, we will be vigilant in locking our doors and well-versed in the latest security practices. But that is still not enough; we need to fight complacency, that nagging temptation to let down our guard and assume that everything will be alright if we leave that back gate unlatched for one night (but that is the night that the skunk skulks in and strews trash all through the yard).
We all are prone to become complacent, whether it is ‘forgetting’ to wear a mask during this pandemic or ‘figuring’ that someone else will pick up your debris and dirty things. We all are susceptible to being blissfully unaware of some potential danger or defect that is present in our life. This is true in the physical world and true in the spiritual world. We are inclined to sleep-walk through some situations to the point where Satan gains a foothold in his attempts to destroy us. It is the concern that Peter addresses in the following verse:
Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. 1 Peter 5:8 (NIV)
The first step in overcoming the enemy is vigilance: we are called to be alert (to stay awake and aware) and sober-minded (to maintain clarity of thought and purpose). The second step is knowing the nature of the enemy: a thief will thieve, a predator will hunt its prey, and the enemy will spew enmity. Taken together, these words from Peter encourage us to be familiar with our surroundings and be clear about the dangers they contain. We are not commanded to cower in fear, assuming the worst, but to commit to face all that seeks to rob us of our joy, anticipating the best God has to offer. Every time we log onto the internet, we must be aware of the lion lurking. Every time we engage with the culture, we must maintain a clear mind so as not to miss what might be hiding in the shadows.
Be careful out there and be caring for one another. Friends don’t let friends be devoured by big cats.
Allow me to state, up front, that I cannot understand, as a middle-aged white man, the frustrations and fears which are associated with being a person of color in America. I cannot honestly declare that I know what it feels like to be stopped by the police based primarily, if not solely, upon the color of my skin. I have no frame of reference where I am able to equate walking in my community with the possibility of being attacked. While I cannot express empathy (where we would share in a mutual emotion) with those mourning and protesting across the country, I can and do express sympathy (where we come alongside one another as we share our unique experiences).
What I can do, as a minister of the gospel and pastor of a city-cited church, is listen to the voices of the oppressed and marginalized. I can also share relevant and revelatory biblical truth. To do that, I would like to share something that someone smarter than me has said:
The Scripture is what tells us that the idolization of the flesh is sin (Gal. 5:16-24), that hatred of those made in the image of God is sin (1 Jn. 3:11-15), that mistreating people with the justice system is sin (Prov. 17:15; 23:10), that ignoring the cries of those being mistreated is sin (Deut. 23:14-15; Jas. 5:4). And the Scripture tells us that that sin, without repentance, brings the judgment of God (Rom. 6:23). That is true not only for those who personally rebel against God’s holiness and justice but also those who “give approval to those who practice them” (Rom. 1:32). That is a dreadful reality, to which those of us in Christ are called to serve as ambassadors pleading, as though Christ were pleading through us, “be reconciled to God” (2 Cor. 5:20). – Russell Moore
Each and every human being is made in the image of God. Each and every human being is fearfully and wonderfully made by the Almighty. Each and every human being is God’s handiwork and created in Christ Jesus to do good work. While holding tight to these truths, we also hold onto the biblical mandate to care for and champion the cause of those whose voices have been silenced: in the time of Christ and the apostles, the voiceless were the widows and orphans, the sick and unclean, the Samaritans and the Gentiles; in our day, they are people of color, as well as the homeless, the hungry and the trafficked.
To follow Christ means to follow Christ. Jesus was a member of the favored demographic, albeit from a back-water region of the nation, who confronted injustice and spoke for the down-trodden. He had his own challenges (he had no place to lay his head and was harassed by the authorities) but remained diligent in making sure that the issues and concerns of the dismissed were addressed. We are to follow Him along that same path. We must stand in opposition to injustice, hear the cries of those who have been silenced and labor to ensure that the dividing wall of hostility, which Christ destroyed, remains dismantled.
May the needed changes come through the people of God.
It began, for me, on a Sunday afternoon a number of weeks ago as we were dropping something off at the home of a church member – we saw a small painted rock, a bit of cheer during this challenging time, on the curbstone in front of their house. Since that time, I have been seeing painted rocks, many with inspirational slogans, all over the neighborhood as we walk. They have been placed on stoops and in side yards, gathered around trees and set upon fenceposts. I have no idea who put them there or when, but I do appreciate the lift they give my soul as I encounter them.
These are not the only rocks I walk by, mind you. My ambling has enabled me to observe cornerstones, surveyor’s marks, painted sea walls, an old milestone, gravestones and etched building facades, all sharing a story, a memory and a history. These stones, painted or chiseled, are permanent reminders of fleeting realities. They are prompts to remember our collective past. They represent to all those who travel by them that that building was once the Massachusetts Fields School or that this particular street was once the main route to Boston. They mark lives and industries, they represent hope and heartache, they tell stories.
Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Shen. He named it Ebenezer, saying, “Thus far the LORD has helped us.” 1 Samuel 7:12
As I see all these stones around me, I have been reminded of Samuel and his ‘Ebenezer’ (a Hebrew compound word which means, literally, ‘stone of remembrance’). Samuel did not want to forget God’s faithfulness, so he erected a rock in the middle of a clearing to remember the event. We could benefit from the same practice: we could experience so much joy if, as we moved about the trails of our lives we were given permanent prompts to remind us of God’s faithfulness throughout the trials of our lives.
I have been thinking about those stones as we navigate the current crisis. I have been thinking about the ‘things’ that have suddenly found their way onto all of our counters and tabletops and have taken up residence in all of our cars. I have begun to see the disposable face masks, the bottles of hand sanitizer and the drums of disinfecting wipes as ‘Ebenezers’ – no longer do they serve as a reminder of a deadly virus but also as a reminder of the Lord who has helped us thus far, of the God who is delivering us through these tough times.
Ebenezers are all around us, if we are careful enough to notice them. They are the permanent and unchanging objects, infused with meaningful memories, that surround us. They are painted rocks and markings on a door frame. They are hospital bracelets and broken wristwatches. They are considered junk by everyone but us; to us, they are the epitome of joy. They are the containers that hold the memories of God’s faithfulness and the tangible touchpoints reminding us that thus far the Lord has helped us. They are precious indeed.